Since social media’s rise in the early 2000s, the world has witnessed the rise and fall of big tech’s claim to aid democracy through increased freedom of expression. This issue begs the question: is social media’s threat to democracy caused by too much freedom in sharing online content, or too little?
Social media platforms were once idealized as gateways to enlightening global discourse. However, a lot has changed. Many platforms have had their image tarnished from their roles in deceitful online campaigns. Legislation in several democracies across the world has been passed to limit big tech’s role in politics, particularly in campaigning. However, legislation has also been proposed, with just as much fervor, to increase public access to these digital platforms. These colliding arguments create blurry standards for big tech’s responsibility in preventing democratic erosion. The world must figure out what type of lock on social media is best for the longevity and prosperity of democratic institutions. Political leaders must come to recognize that democracy can and has survived in a world without social media, so we must prioritize quality content over increased quantities of content.
One of the biggest red flags in social media’s increased access is an influx in purposeful misinformation. Democratically elected leaders can knowingly spread incorrect information to deceitfully sway voters to support them. Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data & Society, wrote that “All too often, technology is designed naively, imaging all of the good but not building safeguards to prevent the bad…And right now, we do not have the safeguards, security, or policies in place to prevent manipulators from doing significant harm with the technologies designed to connect people and help spread information.”
The need for online limitations has become increasingly recognized in recent years. In 2019 Pew Research Center questioned a little under a thousand tech innovators, developers, researchers, activists, and business leaders on how they predict modern technology will “affect core aspects of democracy and democratic representation.” 49% of these respondents predicted that technology will weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade, while 51% believed it will either strengthen democracy or not significantly affect democracy at all.
Since that study was conducted, a growing number of people have witnessed the danger of too much internet freedom. After the 2020 US presidential election, several democratically elected US politicians took to social media to perpetuate a lie that the election was stolen from incumbent President Donald Trump. Trump spread this misinformation as well, using it to rally support to overthrow the election results. Twitter later banned Trump’s account for three years, acknowledging this as an instance where freedom to post content on social media was taken too far in catalyzing democratic erosion, as it helped organize the fatal January 6th insurrection on the US capital.
Alternatively, the freedom to share information on social media, regardless of correctness, has been celebrated by many for opening doors to a new world of global communication. Social media is seen as an extension of the press, where posting on platforms helps keep political leaders in line and prevents the baby steps of democratic backsliding from going too far. Recent internet shutdowns during election seasons, such as the restrictions imposed by India’s government, have been labeled as forms of “democratic backsliding.” Widespread public internet shutdowns, such as in India’s case, go against the ideals of democracy. However, it is important to recognize the difference between reasonable online censorship and authoritarian power sweeps. Increased online content is not a fruitful method of encouraging democracy when it can be weaponized so easily and maliciously.
Democratic leaders must recognize the fragility of democracy in many of the modern states. Yet, the legislative steps needed to safeguard democratic institutions must be done carefully. Understanding this need for online limits begs the question of will this power setting online limits be misused? Possibly. Finding the appropriate balance between online freedom and reasonable safeguards will not be an overnight process. However, even misguided baby steps towards finding this balance are worth a try, or else we will witness a cycle of leaders weaponizing social media, election cycle after election cycle, in anti-democratic attempts to increase their power. We must act now before misled rioters become a norm.